There are a number of ways in which you can attempt to measure a draft, and, inevitably, any way you choose will be wrong—or rather, it would be more accurate to say that it will be incomplete. Nevertheless, the Washington Post recently tackled a significant undertaking in attempting to measure the overall drafting success of every team over the last 20 years, going back to 1996.
Depending on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, it may or may not surprise you to learn that the Pittsburgh Steelers came out on top as the team most successful in drafting players over the span of the past two decades, and they did so by a relatively healthy margin over the second-highest team, the Colts.
The metric by which the Post measured these draft classes was simply to use data from the database website Pro Football Reference, which utilizes a data point they refer to as “draft value” that factors in a number of variables in terms of statistics, longevity, and accolades. They also note a number of issues, such as the lack of inclusion of postseason data.
According to the data, however, the average draft value of a draft pick over the span of the previous 20 drafts has come out to a figure of 12.7. That is the league-wide average figure, which nearly seamlessly divides the league into a top and bottom half.
The Steelers led all teams with an average draft value of 16.37, which was 1.1 points ahead of the Colts, with the Packers, Ravens, and Patriots rounding out the top five, and I would imagine that there are no surprises within that group.
The bottom five teams in the league in terms of gaining value out of their draft picks are the Lions at 28 with an average value of 11.1, followed by the Rams, the Bills, the Raiders, and finally—and rather predictable—the Browns, whose average draft value is just 9.55, the only team in single digits, in fact.
In case you were wondering, to round out the AFC North, the Bengals placed just outside of the top 10 in the league, finishing 11th with an average overall draft value of 13.13, no doubt having seen a significant upward trajectory, as they have been drafting notably better over the course of the past half-decade or so, and have one of the deepest rosters in the league built through the draft.
There is a wealth of interesting data in the article worth pursuing further, which I fully plan on doing in future articles heading into next week, but it does note a couple of interesting examples of players the Steelers drafted, and whom they could have drafted instead at the same position. For example, with the 13th overall selection of Troy Edwards in 1999, they could have had Donald Driver—although he was a late-round pick. But they could have had at least Peerless Price, drafted in the second round with a career draft value of 43, compared to Edwards’ 19. The team could have had any number of running backs instead of Rashard Mendenhall in 2008.
Overall, however, the Steelers have found remarkable success in the draft relative to the rest of the league. This is prevailing opinion among most fans, even if a vocal minority remains rather skeptical, and one could argue that their more recent draft successes have been on the decline. But at least by this metric, it is clear that, from a broad perspective, Pittsburgh has been as good as anybody in stacking talent through the draft over a period of decades.